Creating the Formula One of the showjumping world

Irish-American Frank McCourt wants to turn the Global Champions Tour into a spectacle to rival the world’s top sporting events

Irish-American property and sports billionaire Frank McCourt at a Los Angeles Dodgers game. Photograph: Jon SooHoo/LA Dodgers

Irish-American property and sports billionaire Frank McCourt at a Los Angeles Dodgers game. Photograph: Jon SooHoo/LA Dodgers

 

Nestled inside the historic Horse Guards Parade is a beautiful arena which is the setting of the eleventh leg of the 2014 Longines Global Champions Tour.

The three-day event, at the far end of St James’s Park from Buckingham Palace, is bustling with horses being warmed up or down before jumping.

Frank McCourt, the slim Irish-American property and sports billionaire, gradually works his way across the VIP section of the event, past an elaborate array of canapés and a champagne bar.

McCourt is famous for selling the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team for $2 billion to a consortium led by basketball great Magic Johnson.

Less well known is what happened to him afterwards and how his roots going back to Co Tyrone and Co Galway have shaped him as a businessman.

In June, McCourt acquired a 50 per cent stake in the Global Champions Tour. He hopes it will become the Formula One of showjumping by combining 14 stunning city locations with the best riders and horses in the world.

The other half of the tour is owned by Jan Tops, a Dutch showjumping legend who won Olympic team gold in Barcelona in 1992. The financial terms of this deal have not been disclosed, but it is big business.

Tops, who founded the series in 2006, had already convinced the top 30 ranked riders in the world to sign up for the event. His wife Edwina Alexander, an Olympic rider sponsored by Gucci, previously won the tour, so he knows every aspect of it.

The championship certainly has the glamour quotient of F1. As McCourt approaches, across the arena Bruce Springsteen and his wife Patti are in the stand waiting for their daughter Jessica to ride.

Sofia Abramovich, who is also competing, was seen a few minutes earlier walking the jumps. There is no sign of father Roman, the Russian oligarch and Chelsea owner, in the crowd.

In terms of numbers, the Champions Tour attracts 150 million television viewers. It is impressive, but still only 28 per cent of the viewers of Bernie Ecclestone’s F1.

The prize money of $12 million makes the tour the most lucrative event for showjumpers in the world, but it is only a fraction of the money available to top motor racing drivers, who individually can earn tens of millions.

McCourt takes his seat, wearing an open-neck shirt with monographed cufflinks. He has the engaging character of an Irish-American dealmaker, who is clearly passionate about his new investment.

First love

McCourt outlines his vision in a low voice so as not to disturb the riders whose horses are making perilous leaps just yards from him. Occasionally he pauses mid-sentence to watch a particularly dazzling jump, but he doesn’t lose his train of thought.

McCourt has been burned by the media – notably after a bitter divorce amid criticism by some fans of his final days at the Los Angeles Dodgers – but today he wants to talk about his future, not his past.

After McCourt sold the Dodgers for $2 billion in 2012, his initial focus was on his first love: property.

He renamed his business McCourt Global to reflect his ambition to not only invest in America but also go overseas. He moved its headquarters to New York from Los Angeles, and initially it had two arms, McCourt Properties to develop real estate, and McCourt Capital to make investments.

Gradually the itch to get back into owning a sports franchise grew. In 2013, McCourt hired Blackstone to advise on how to re-enter the sports business.

“I was interested in finding a sport that I felt had a great foundation in place, a great history and legacy, but that there was also an opportunity to grow,” he says.

“I was particularly interested in showjumping. I asked Blackstone to do some work for me and to look around the world and see what was the state of the sport and who was involved in doing what and so forth.”

Blackstone came back with a name: Jan Tops.

“They identified Jan as someone who was very knowledgeable about the sport, and had been involved in it his whole life,” McCourt says.

“He seemed to be someone who had a good sense for the growth possibilities for the sport.”

A lunch was arranged in Paris late last year, and the American businessman and the Dutch rider hit it off.

McCourt knew Tops had developed a good series, but he felt his knowledge of growing revenues by television, merchandising and other deals could make it a greater success.

“The most important thing then was just to talk and see did we share values and philosophy,” McCourt says. “It really didn’t take long. Both of us are the type of people who can make up our minds very quickly.”

The tour had secured “iconic locations” for its events such as Port d’Hercule in Monaco and Champ de Mars in Paris, making it a “beautiful platform,” that was poised for growth by going into Shanghai and Doha, according to McCourt.

“Shanghai is just the beginning in Asia. Doha is just the beginning in that part of the world,” he says. “We will also be expanding into the United States.

“This is the chance to build one of the very rare truly global brands in sport. That makes it very, very special.

“Each venue looks totally different and feels different. It is not like we are going from one cookie-cutter event to the next. Each one is a piece of artwork.”

The potential worldwide television and online audience for the tour has only begun to be tapped, he believes.

“We want to bring the sport to everybody. We want to develop the Global Champions Tour so that our production quality gets better and better and our reach increases globally,” he says.

Ireland’s long tradition of showjumping means McCourt would like to see the tour come to Dublin.

“For me it would be just a dream come true scenario. I would love to do that. Some of our best riders are from Ireland, some of the best horses as well. It would be great to be able to do it someday, but all these things take time.”

McCourt’s connection with Ireland is a strong one. He visited his brother’s holiday home in Co Clare recently with his mother Kay, whose roots are in Galway, earlier this year.

“I was born and raised in Boston but the Irish heritage and traditions run very deep,” he says.

Road building

McCourt traces his business acumen to his great-grandfather John McCourt, who emigrated to Boston from Co Tyrone.

“After he had gotten settled he started our construction business in 1893. Just about the same time as Henry Ford was developing the automobile he started building roads.”

In the 1920s, John McCourt’s three sons, Francis (McCourt’s grandfather), Tom, and John Jr, took control of The John McCourt Company.

Initially, the focus was road building but in the 1940s they built what is now Logan Airport in Boston, and they continued to work on its expansion for the next 70 years.

In 1947, Francis McCourt became part-owner of the Boston Braves, a local baseball team, sowing an interest in sport in his grandson.

In the 1950s, the McCourts helped build the John F Fitzgerald Expressway through the heart of Boston. Forty years later, they buried it underground in a megaproject known as the “Big Dig.”

“Our business is now over 120 years old . . . At the core we are builders, so building out the Global Champions Tour is right up our alley,” McCourt says.

McCourt’s father, Frank Sr, gave him an early introduction to the world of hard hats and cement. “I used to go to construction sites with my dad when I was just a wee boy. I love the sounds and the smells . . .”

One of seven children, McCourt studied economics in his father’s alma mater, Georgetown University. When he graduated in 1975, he joined the family business, but two years later struck out on his own founding The McCourt Company.

“The family heritage was in road building and that grew into a large public works company. That is what we call horizontal construction, but I was enamoured with building the big buildings, the vertical stuff.”

McCourt says his father was supportive of his decision. “I will never forgot that when I started he made it very easy for me as he told me my desk in the office would always be there for me if I needed it. I was very fortunate knowing that desk was always there.”

McCourt worked on lots of projects but his big break was acquiring 24 acres of land in the Boston Seaport area of South Boston for $8 million in the 1970s from Penn Central, a bankrupt railway company.

“It was in pretty rugged shape,” he recalls. “It didn’t look very nice, but to me it was beautiful. It had all the key ingredients to be a great new part of the city if one was patient.”

McCourt spent $6 million more on legal fees and related deals as he fought to clear the land and prepare it for development. He turned it into a car park to generate cash. Gradually, things came together.

Access improved as the Big Dig finally finished, making the Seaport the natural next location for the city to expand into. The site McCourt had battled to develop, now increased in value tenfold.

By 2002 as a result, McCourt was wealthy, but far from super-rich. The Jean R Yawkey Trust put the Boston Red Sox on the market and McCourt decided to bid, inspired by his grandfather’s interest.

“We were one of the finalists in the bidding, but at the end of the day we didn’t win,” he says. “I felt quite lucky to be even bidding on my hometown team.”

Two years later, Major League Baseball (MLB), the organisers of the sport, knocked on his door with an offer.

“They asked me would I be interested in looking at another team. That is when the idea of purchasing the Los Angeles Dodgers came up.”

The McCourt family was embedded in Boston, and at first he didn’t want to move west. “I thought about it. If my great grandfather could pick up and move from Ireland to Boston, then I could pick up and move across the country.”

By now, McCourt’s Seaport site was valued at $125 million. Asset rich but relatively cash poor, he used this land as collateral to buy the Dodgers from Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.

Murdoch, he says, was “very bright and very fair,” and a price-tag of $430 million was agreed.

It was a big gamble. He was buying a team with huge history. It was the team where Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s colour line in 1947.

Roaring back

But in business terms it was in trouble.

“The team was certainly not doing as well as it could have or should have been doing,” McCourt says. “It was losing almost $60 million per year and had been doing so for six straight years. The team hadn’t won a playoff game in 15 or 16 years.

“The brand had eroded but not to a point where it wasn’t something that the lustre could be brought back to.

“We are very proud of what we were able to accomplish in a very short period of time. We fixed the team both on and off the field.”

McCourt took the business of the team “out of negative and into positive.”

On the field, he stands by his record. “We were able to make the playoffs four times in a six-year stretch which had never happened in the history of the Los Angeles Dodgers before.”

Off the field, the lustre of the team returned. “The brand came roaring back and the testimony to that was our ultimate sales price.

“When we did sell, it was the highest price ever paid for a sports franchise in the history of sport. We are proud of that. We thought it was a real validation of what we achieved,” he says.

Towards the end of his ownership of the team, things were not going well.

McCourt endured a bitter and expensive divorce from his wife Jamie. Tabloid headlines seized on every lurid detail – even Vanity Fair dug into the affair in an article entitled “A major-league divorce”.

It was unsavoury stuff, and little heed was given to McCourt’s side of the story. The LA Dodgers had surged in value since he had bought it, but it was also vulnerable and, as like all big teams, it had debts too.

Bud Selig, the powerful Major League Baseball commissioner publicly clashed with McCourt, putting the team under more pressure.

In June 2011, the LA Dodgers filed for bankruptcy protection to allow it restructure its debt.

The Dodgers said at the time that by blocking a television deal that would have injected fresh cash into the business, MLB left it with no other choice than to take drastic action. MLB denied it was the one to blame.

The result was the LA Dodgers went on the market.

McCourt today feels criticism of his final period in charge was a result of a “combination of things”.

“I think that first it comes with the territory. If one is going to be involved in sports you had better have thick skin because fans are very passionate, rightfully, about sports,” he says.

“I consider myself a passionate sports fan and with that comes lots of opinions and lots of commentary and so forth.”.

He pauses for a moment, before saying: “I’d take controversy and winning versus quiet and losing any day.”

Gradually, a deal came together to sell the team. A consortium fronted by Magic Johnson with the financial power of Guggenheim Partners, a $200 billion fund, beat off all comers.

“My tenure owning the Dodgers was always going to be judged in many ways by my last decision,” he says. “That decision was who I sold the team to.

“It was a simple decision in this case because they were both the best buyer for the team and the high bidder. There was complete alignment.”

McCourt became close to Guggenheim and it is now his investment partner in his other property deals.

They formed a joint-venture to develop the 240-acre site around the LA Dodgers stadium, and became partners in other property developments in Texas and New York.

“My dream of back in the ’70s was of going from horizontal to vertical. I was enamoured with big beautiful buildings. It has now really come true,” he says.

“We are building grand projects all around the world with Guggenheim. For a builder there is nothing more special.”

McCourt’s biggest project is 360 Tenth Avenue in Manhattan, which is near the Hudson Yards project and the High Line Park.

The site alone cost $167 million, but McCourt says it will cost a multiple of that to develop the project which is zoned for a 65,032sq m (700,000sq ft) mixed-use development. When finished, a new skyscraper will be on the Manhattan horizon.

McCourt is looking too at Ireland. “I think Ireland is doing a very good job of bouncing back right now,” he says. “We are investing in Ireland currently through our telecom arm which my younger brother David runs.”

McCourt’s brother David is chief executive of Granahan McCourt Capital. It was part of a consortium which bought fibre network operator enet last October.

“David is also encouraging me to invest in real estate in Ireland sooner rather than later. I would love to do that if I could find the right opportunity. We have looked at a few things, but we just haven’t found the right project,” he says.

McCourt is tight-lipped about what he had looked at. “I think that would just get me into trouble!” he laughs.

€100 million donation

In founding McCourt Global, McCourt is preparing for the fifth generation of his family to join him in construction.

The eldest of his four sons Drew leads his real estate division. “We want to be in business for a long, long time. Longevity is an important thing for us . . . characteristics like persistence and resilience and hard work ethic and loyalty and so forth, are all things that we think are very important in both business and life.”

Last year, McCourt donated $100 million to Georgetown to create the McCourt School of Public Policy.

“Our goal for the public policy school is for it to be the preeminent public policy school in the world,” he says.

Investing in the school is also part of his plan to ensure his family stay involved with both the university and philanthropy.

He also owns the LA Marathon, but for him the race is not about making money, but allowing people fundraise for good causes.

“Connections to things matter in life . . . so much boils down to who you are and what makes you tick and your core values and core principles,” he says.

“I really consider myself to be a hugely fortunate human being. I have always felt that way. A lot has been given to me in life and I try to do the best with it. I don’t take it for granted.”

McCourt has another meeting to attend, and his guests are standing beside us.

As he gets up a friend wishes him happy birthday. It is August 14th, and McCourt is 61.

He is a billionaire who need not work again. But, tempered by battle, McCourt shows no signs of stopping building.